Marie Festa walked out onto the Westbury High School stage and placed a wooden footstool down in front of her. She stepped up and told the 1,500 people gathered for Nassau County's #AllKidsNeed forum Thursday night that she is 77 and has been paying school taxes in Massapequa for 45 years.
"That's called paying it forward," she said.
Festa (pictured at right) may have been the oldest person to present a testimonial that night; she was definitely the shortest.
She moved to Massapequa for the public schools in the 1970s, because she has a daughter with special needs. She was told her children could get a great public education. "That was, and is, true," she said.
Her daughter "is a very successful woman in her chosen career, because of her public school education. She is a packer in a supermarket, and she takes the bus to work every day. She was taught to do this by her public school teachers."
Festa said we live in a real world and it is very important for children to attend public schools with a diverse range of students, with different backgrounds and different abilities. The governor has no appreciation for that.
"This, governor, is the real world!" she said. "And I thank a public school shop teacher for teaching a special needs student to make this stool I'm standing on!" She then picked it up and waved it over her head while exiting stage right.
Much of this jam-packed evening — emceed by 2006 state Teacher of the Year Stephen Bongiovi of the Seaford Union Free School District — belonged to the young people. An even dozen students from Nassau County high schools shared how they overcame reticence and language to excel and prove the value of public education.
Isabel Amaya from host Westbury described herself as a shy girl who could barely speak in class when she was younger. Now she's the senior president of the National Honor Society at the school.
"I am the first child in my family to go to college. We had no idea what we were doing, but with the help of counselors and teachers, I've been able to do something I never thought I'd be able to do."
Yousak Shakil said his public school experience "turned a shy kid into a confident one. My voice will be heard." And he founded the first LGBTQ alliance at Westbury.
Danielle McDougall grew up speaking English, but has blossomed in the Westbury dual language program. It "has helped me become not only nearly fluent in Spanish, but to have a more considerate view of all cultures and languages." She won first place in a national Hispanic Heritage Essay Contest, in Spanish.
Bongiovi noted, "Not one mention of a test or a test score" in these testimonials.
Marianne Adrian, a Levittown parent, lamented the impact of increased emphasis of testing on her younger daughter compared to her child who is six years older.
"I ask myself, 'why are they trying to discourage the love of learning in our little ones," she said.
Ellen White is director of the Center Stage Theater Program, which promotes theater arts for students with disabilities and regular students at South Side High. She appeared with student Josie DeMarco, who is expanding the program outside the school to the community.
"We use words like Love, Magic and Sparkle," White said. "These are the intangibles that a public education creates, and you can't measure that with a test score."
After testimonials from Crystal Zheng and Bill Crugnola (pictured above), both students at Jericho High School and, oh yeah, both Intel science finalists, Bongiovi told the crowd it was time for a group activity.
He urged everyone to take out their cell phones and dial 518-474-8390. "We're calling the governor's office and telling him to stop bashing our successful public schools!"
After locating at least one person in the audience who actually got through, Bongiovi led the crowd to shout in unison, "Stop Bashing our Schools!"
After thanking NYSUT for organizing the event, West Hempstead Union Free School District Superintendent Richard Cunningham, stated the obvious: "This is not just a NYSUT event." The crowd was filled with parents and community supporters.
The governor says more money for schools has not helped, Cunningham said, "but I ask, where is the money?"
Since 2008, West Hempstead has done everything it was asked to do, mostly doing more with less. But state aid has simply dried up. He said the district has lost more than $7 million from the Gap Elimination Adjustment in the past five years, and Westbury has lost more than $13 million. The lack of promised foundation aid is even worse, he added.
Cunningham also renounced the governor's teacher evaluation plans that would "cost us more to implement and still not give us what we need."
John Durso, president of the Long Island Federation of Labor, leads 250,000 union members on Long Island. He took an opportunity to talk about NYSUT.
"NYSUT is New York State UNITED Teachers - united for students! United for communities!"
He asked all the NYSUT members in the crowd to stand, and he told everyone to look to their left and right.
"That's the person who is going to fight for you, day in and day out! … Stick together and nobody can defeat us! Fight for each other! Be proud of what you do each and every day!"
School psychologist Stuart Mayrick from East Meadow, spoke about testing anxiety, but said he had a good idea: "How about we remove the cause, and cure that problem."
In addition, Mayrick said, "We cannot stand to see politicians suck the love of learning out of our students and suck the love of teaching out of our teachers."
Alex Lopez-Guevara, a Westbury senior, was among the last group of students to speak Thursday. He started out in Spanish, and told the crowd, that's what English sounded like to him when he first came to Long Island. Now he's in the top 10 in his class, taking AP English literature and was named Nassau County's top scholar-artist for his art and dedication to his grades. He hopes to go to Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City to study communications design.
Trembling, Lopez-Guevara took a deep breath, threw up his hands and said, "I couldn't even describe my gratitude to the Westbury school district." The audience roared, of course. But it wasn't about him.
"Remember," he said. "Every kid's life matters. Even when a kid has given up on himself, never give up on that kid."